Posted by Miles Arbour
Words and photos by Lars Henning (@larsmarshandlebars)
The Bear Bones 300 is the 300-kilometre big brother of the notorious Bear Bones 200, an annual bikepacking ITT event in Wales. The BB200 is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2020. Whilst the route itself changes each year, there are some common themes that the loyal Bear Bones community has grown accustomed to.
Each route is known to include ambiguous sections where the path all but disappears and the GPX trace becomes a vague suggestion, connecting the dots on a possibly outdated Ordnance Survey map. The vast amount of rain in Wales makes this terrain subject to hike-a-bike and ‘bog trotting’. Riders can expect steep climbs, challenging navigation, technical riding through swamp like conditions, and a plethora of ‘creative’ farm gate latching mechanisms. Pace is slower than you might expect. This is not a gravel race.
But don’t let these things put you off. This was my fifth completion of a Bear Bones 200/300 and whilst I’ll admit this is ‘Type 2’ fun, there must be a reason we keep coming back to this event as one of Britain’s longest running bikepacking ITTs. There is something about the bleak and quiet landscapes of Wales, the colours and lush vegetation, and the cocktail of adventure and madness that comes with getting lost in tussocks in the middle of the night.
As with everything in 2020, endurance cycling events have been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. There was no Bear Bones group start. Instead, we received an email with the top secret GPX towards the end of September and we were given the option to ride any time in October, starting from any point on the route. Given that most principal areas of Wales were under strict lockdown (no one in or out), the route was restricted to the county of Powys, which borders the English counties of Herefordshire and Shropshire. After some chin scratching on the route, I decided the suggested start point (Kington, Herefordshire) and typical start date (early Saturday in October) were ideal.
I didn’t think twice about bike choice. I went with the Highball, because it worked well for me in 2019. I used basically all the same kit, with a few exceptions: lighter Hunt XC wheelset, full Mudhuggers, and Shimano XM9 winter boots (I have horrible circulation). I ran with Exposure lights and Garmin eTrex Touch 35 as usual.
I checked into The Walking Hub in Kington, set up by Ali as cozy B&B for outdoorsy types. I highly recommend this place to anyone biking or hiking around Kington or Hay-on-Wye. Ali is a hill walker, super friendly and thoughtful, and her homemade granola is delicious.
Departing from Kington 07:15, I began chipping away at the climbs to Hay-on-Wye over Hay Bluff and onwards to Crickhowell. I caught fellow Bear Boners Rich and James just before Hay. They had decided to start the BB300 from Kington on the same day. We rode through Hay together before the Cussop Dingle ford across the Welsh border. Although there was speculation on the forum about a waist-deep crossing, the water level had already dropped and the ford was rideable (win!). But my dry feet would only last a short while longer before accumulating ingress from all the puddle splashback, even with the Mudhuggers.
The climb up Hay Bluff was steady and rideable, but unfortunately it rose into a low fog before the summit, ruling out any chance of any panoramic photos. Perhaps this contributed to me getting a bit off track where I followed a faint sheep trail to the left that just happened to run parallel to the main track for about a kilometre. I cursed myself for my mistake, but all was forgotten when I hit the glorious technical descent down the other side into the Olchon Valley. Full disclosure: I did walk about 100m down some steep, slippery boulders.
Things began to look more familiar as I approached Pandy, as I’ve ridden the Black Mountains a few times before. I said hello to BB200 rider Eugene at the base of a steep climb on a particularly lumpy section, which was followed by a gnarly motocrossed hike-a-bike through trees. Fortunately, it came rewarded by the classic Blaen yr Henbant segment of the Beacons Way descending down towards Crickhowell.
A few kilometres before rolling into Crickhowell, I found Steve Waters, an experienced rider from the Peaks, riding the BB200 route. We shared ride stories on the way into town. I stopped at the toilets for a water refill and Steve went to the bakery. I didn’t stop for any food, because I was packing a framebag full of sandwiches and pizza and my plan was to make it to Builth for a food stop. I gave Steve a wave and rode off.
The long steady climb out of Crickhowell came with a headwind, which slowly wore me down by the time I hit the hike-a-bike up to rejoin the Beacons Way. But it came with a vista of Talybont Reservoir just as the sun came out to make this ride look more photogenic.
I had estimated my schedule based on 2019 pace, which should have put me in Builth around 21:15, but as I approached the Gap, I realised I’d struggle to get there before the petrol station closed at 23:00. After a few hours of pushing my pace, I rolled in at 22:56 and made a mess on the floor they had just mopped before closing, grabbing coffee and sandwiches and leaving a trail of sheep shit behind me. They were surprisingly understanding! I stuffed my face outside as they locked up and headed to their cars. I wondered what they thought of me covered in mud, drinking a mocha and eating sandwiches outside at 23:15.
Starting to feel the cold, I layered up and started the climb out of Builth, which led to a series of rolling quiet lanes. But the cruising wasn’t to last, because the route had some more rough stuff up its sleeve. At one point I was walking through a field of turnips and later found out I was beside a gravel track.
As the hours passed, the fatigue began to slowly wear me down. I was doing more harm than good and I realised I would be better off with some sleep if I was going to finish the route. Around 03:00 I came across a dilapidated sheep hut a few kilometres before Monaughty and the persistent drizzle helped me decide it was time for a bivy.
The alarm assaulted me at 07:00. I had the usual battle in my head to get out of the nice warm quilt and put my wet kit back on. This is never as bad as I think it’s going to be, but always leads to procrastination. I was soon on the bike again, nursing the familiar sensation of EBC (extreme bum chafing). It forced me out of the saddle more than I am used to.
I arrived in a very quiet Knighton in time for breakfast, where I gobbled down a massive omelette and chips, two coffees, and a carrot cake. Stiffen the wombats! That felt better! My legs started to work again, my eyes opened up, the sun was shining, and I was enjoying myself again. It was another 70km of cruising to the finish, with only a few more climbs and slow sections. It felt easy when compared with my nocturnal meanderings.
I finished at 15:50 on Sunday with a time of 32 hours and 34 minutes. My total moving time was 24:40. For comparison, I finished the BB300 2019 in 25:07 (22:54 moving time), so even subtracting the bivvy and comfort stops, my pace was significantly slower. The climbs were exceptionally punchy and unrelenting, the mud and spongy ground cover sapped my energy, and there were a silly number of gates to slow me down. However, there were some thoroughly enjoyable singletrack sections, including Hay Bluff, Beacons Way, Talybont Reservoir, Taff Trail, and The Gap. The Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons really are some of the best riding in South Wales.
My spirits were lifted by meeting Rich, James, Eugene, and Steve Waters en route, who had decided to ride the same day. It almost made me forget about the strange circumstances for this year’s event. I later found out that Steve Large, Alex Berry, Steve Chapman, and Andy Bennett were also riding that day, each of us starting at different times and from various start points. Some were riding the 200 and a few riding the 300. It was certainly odd not having the usual mass start from Llanbrynmair this year, but I think we made the best of the situation, with good pre and post ride bantz on the Bear Bones forum as usual.
Congrats to everyone who participated at this year’s Bear Bones event!